This is my sixth in a series of reviews of the party manifestos. Today it is Plaid Cymru.
- Decisions about policing and criminal justice need to be made in Wales so that we can set our own priorities for keeping our streets safe.
- Devolved criminal justice would allow us to provide more appropriate sentencing, including diverting young people and those with mental health problems towards alternatives to custody.
- Our justice policy will focus on prevention, using restorative justice and rehabilitation through probation rather than only offer ineffective short-term sentences.
- We will tackle mental health issues amongst prisoners in order to prevent future criminal behaviour.
In a sense policing is already devolved because police services are pretty autonomous in practice. It is likely that increased devolution will include criminal justice and policing after the election. If this means that resources and political leadership result in more children and young people diverted from crime and sanction, then it is to be welcomed. That would save Welsh taxpayers money, would reduce crime and would stop young people from having lives blighted by unnecessary involvement with the criminal justice system. It is good to see a focus on prevention and restorative justice and if Plaid Cymru can halt the use of short prison sentences it would be a huge step forward.Â As the NHS is already devolved in Wales, investing increased resources into mental health care for people on the brink of offending is something that can, and should, be done.
- We will reverse Legal Aid reforms to allow fair access to justice and will monitor its implementation.
- There is a lack of appropriate prison facilities for women prisoners in Wales and limited facilities for young offenders. We will identify suitable sites and funding to put this right.
Now this is a shocking example of identifying a serious problem and coming up with the wrong answer. The very last thing Wales needs is two new prisons, one for women and one for children. Older teenagers go to one ofÂ the biggest prisons in England or Wales that is in Bridgend and run by a private company, so there is no need for more places. Wales has one of the biggest local authority-run childrenâs secure units in the UK and that offers sufficient places for the very few children who require custody. The history of prison building shows that they get filled before they are even built, so building a prison for women would be disastrous. The Scottish government has just abandoned such a proposal. The Howard League is now working with former Swansea MP Sian James (features in the best film ever, Pride) to work with agencies to stop women coming into the criminal justice system and get them the services they need. There are 50 women’s centres across England that provide a wide range of services and we want to see that sort of network established for Welsh women.
- Plaid Cymru opposes the development of a privately built and run âsuper-prisonâ at Wrexham, which does not meet the needs of North Wales.
- We will help prisoners to develop reading and literacy skills to help them find a job away from a life of crime.
- We will look to bring the Welsh probation service back into public control to ensure the best results for our communities.
- We will introduce Welsh legal jurisdiction to codify our own laws.
- We support the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.
- Following the large cuts to the number of magistratesâ courts in Wales, we will allow for hearings to be held in alternative locations.
We worked with Plaid Cymru, academics and other politicians to oppose the disastrous super prison at Wrexham. It meets no oneâs needs except the building companies. Literacy and education in prisons is to be welcomed, obviously. It is not going to be possible to bring the Welsh probation service back into public control, unless the Ministry of Justice manages the contracts so efficiently and tightly that the companies cannot play the system â I am not optimistic. It is likely that legal jurisdiction will indeed be devolved and support for the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights is welcome. I am less enthusiastic about holding courts in schools and pubs as this does not provide adequate support and protection to victims nor do they have IT systems and administration back-ups. I think this could be a mess.
- We will create ex-servicemenâs courts to better recognise the particular problems faced by former members of the armed forces.
This suggestion grew from an inquiry organised by the Howard League that looked at veteransâ courts. In the end we were not convinced that separate courts were viable, particularly as at least half of the veterans in prison have been convicted of serious violent and/or sex crimes. We came to the conclusion that special training for sentencers to understand the particular problems faced by veterans was a better idea.
This is a real mixed bag, with some welcome principled and evidence-based policies and then some suggestions that seem to contradict those principles.
You can find a copy of the Manifesto here.
The crime and justice section is between pages 30-31.
This is the fifth in my series of commentaries on the justice proposals in the party manifestos. Today it is the Green Party.
ÂˇÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Treat drug addiction as a health issue
This is welcome. Too many people are marginalised and sink into criminality to feed a drug addiction. If we can prevent the crime in the first place by putting health services in place to help people, everyone would benefit and the penal system would not be clogged with people who need help.
ÂˇÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Increase the use of restorative justice
Restorative justice (RJ) is the most thoroughly researched but least well understood intervention. It cannot just be added on to a punitive system but is a completely different way of approaching responses to crime. It is not clear from the manifesto that the Greens have quite grasped the principles as the example used is based on work in Brighton that apparently showed children the error of their ways. RJ is about healing the damage done by crime, not another way of frightening people. So, this could be a positive move in the right direction, or a complete misunderstanding of RJ, who knows.
ÂˇÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Oppose the privatisation of the probation service
This is welcome. But probably too late. The split in the probation service has already happened and the challenge for a new government will be how to mitigate the most venal aspects of the new system. There is already evidence that the private companies are starting to play the system by trying to get more easy to manage âcustomersâ. I would prefer to have seen a robust commitment to manage the contracts carefully so that any indication of wrong-doing by the CRCs would be dealt with fast and furious.
ÂˇÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Operate a smaller prison service, saving ÂŁ5.5 billion over the next Parliament
Great. How? This proposal implies closing prisons but that has to be accompanied by a big reduction in the number of prisoners. There are two aspects to this, it would be necessary to cut sentence lengths including reducing the number of people serving indeterminate sentences, and, reduce the number of people going into the system. If you just close prisons, people have to reallocated to the remaining establishments and this is exactly what the current government did, causing terrible overcrowding. A smaller prison service has to be the result of political leadership, controls on sentencing and legislative change.
ÂˇÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Grant prisoners the right to vote
This is a brave call. Imprisonment should not be a civil death. Surely everyone wants people to be active and law-abiding citizens and participating in democracy is part of that. There are practical problems that I have never managed to solve though. Jurisdictions that grant the franchise to prisoners have proportional representation, whereas our constituency-based system creates problems – 1,500 prisoners given the vote could swing a decision in a Parliamentary vote and would overwhelm a local council election.
ÂˇÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Oppose the use of the death penalty abroad
I think all governments have done this, some more vigorously than others it must be said. A welcome statement.
You can find a copy of the Manifesto here.
The crime and justice section is between pages 75 â 76.
This is the fourth in my commentaries on the various manifestos. Today it is Labourâs turn.
- We will protect neighbourhood policing.
The manifesto section on justice concentrates on policing and includes various specific commitments including abolition of the Police and Crime Commissioners and a new standards authority to replace the IPCC. This interesting for what it does not say, rather than for what it does. Much of the neighbourhood stuff is predictable and pretty sensible. However, there is nothing about the burgeoning problem of internet fraud that is beginning to be a much more serious threat to people than a handbag theft or criminal damage.
- We will nip anti-social behaviour in the bud by making offenders put right the wrong they have done, with payback orders replacing low-level cautions.
This harks back to a bygone era – remember the now-discredited Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. They should have learnt that criminalising low-level nuisance behaviour is expensive and counter-productive and fails to prevent or deal with the problem. It is right that people should put things right, but this does not need to be through the criminal justice system. I would prefer to see more responsibility and powers given to local authorities to resolve local conflict and misbehaviour.
- We will ensure staff who work with the public are given greater protection, with tougher penalties for those who assault them.
No one would disagree with the principle behind this. Nurses, bus drivers, police and shop keepers should of course be treated with courtesy. I am not convinced that reverting to the old shibboleths helps much.
- The next Labour Government will pilot a new approach to 18 to 20-year-old offenders, incentivising local authorities, police and probation services to work together to identify those at risk of drifting into criminal activity and, where possible, divert them into a more constructive way of life.
This is potentially very welcome. There is evidence that young adults do not fully develop until their mid-twenties. I support the idea of investing in helping young adults mature positively. Previously, the shadow Justice Secretary has suggested expanding the remit of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), but it is interesting this is not mentioned in the manifesto itself (whereas it is in the Liberal Democrat manifesto).
I support the development of a young adult-specific approach, and that approach may learn from the work of youth offending teams, but expanding the remit of the YJB would likely dilute the existing focus on children, particularly if there is no additional money to hand.Â And the track record of the YJB is not so wonderful as its advocates regularly claim.Â When it was established by the last Labour government, it led to an explosion in the numbers of children in custody.Â That would not be the answer for the young adults of today.
- We will work to embed restorative justice right across the youth justice system.
Restorative justice is the foundation of the youth justice system in Northern Ireland and in many other countries. I applaud the principle, and look forward to the detail.
- We know drug addiction continues to be a major cause of crime. We will ensure drug treatment services focus on the root causes of addiction, with proper integration between health, police and local authorities in the commissioning of treatment.
- A new child protection unit will be established to work across government, driving progress in the prevention of child abuse and sexual exploitation.
I think this is a good idea. We need a more coherent approach to protecting children, one that is based on what has been learned from the scandals of recent years, one that is based on listening to children and young people.
- We need prisons that both punish and rehabilitate people. Labour will do more to increase the amount of time prisoners spend working and learning.
The Howard League pioneered the concept of real work for prisoners. We ran a graphic design business inside a prison with proper employment practices. We closed it down when the Prison Service would not let our prisoners pay tax. I welcome anything that gets the 30,000 adult men who are serving long sentences working. But it must be proper work, like the rest of us do.
- Prisons will be measured by how successful they are in reforming prisoners and reducing their re-offending.
I think this is pie in the sky. Prisons donât reform people. At best they can not make things worse. Prisons should be decent and safe and busy. But to expect that they are going to magically turn round chaotic lives simply flies in the face of all experience and evidence. Prisons are in such a terrible state with gross overcrowding, under-staffing and lack of purpose that an incoming government will face huge challenges just to stop the violence and deaths.
- A Labour Government will stand up for citizensâ individual rights, protecting the Human Rights Act and reforming, rather than walking away from, the European Court of Human Rights.
The Human Rights Act was one of the most creditable achievements of the last Labour government. I am not sure what reforming the ECtHR means, perhaps they arenât either.
- We will make sure that access to legal representation, a cornerstone of our democracy, is not determined by personal wealth, but remains available to those that need it.
This sounds good. Does it mean that Labour will reverse the legal aid cuts?
- Our Freedom of Information laws have shone a light into the darker corners of government and are a crucial check on the power of the Executive. We will extend their scope so that public services run by large private companies are included.
This is great. It is anomalous that the burgeoning private companies running public services are exempt from democratic scrutiny and accountability.
- We will repair the damage done by this Government to the vital safeguard offered by judicial review.
Again, to be welcomed.
- We will publish a Violence against Women and Girls Bill, appoint a commissioner to set minimum standards in tackling domestic and sexual violence, and provide more stable central funding for womenâs refuges and Rape Crisis Centres.
This reflects the hard work done by women MPs and lawyers to get domestic abuse treated seriously.
- We will strengthen the law, banning the use of community resolutions as a response to domestic violence.
I am not in favour of an outright ban. Some domestic violence is committed by teenagers on teenagers within the family and there are exceptional circumstances when a community resolution is appropriate. There has to be discretion, the question is how it is applied.
Here is a copy of the Manifesto and the relevant pages are 51 â 54 and 66-68.
April 22, 2015
Âˇ Frances Crook Âˇ One Comment
Posted in: anti-social behaviour, Children and young people, Government policy, Human rights, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Police, Prisons, Privatisation, Rehabilitation, Sentencing, Uncategorized, Women in the penal system, Work in prisons
This is the third in my series of blogs commenting on the criminal justice aspects of the party manifestos. Today it is the Liberal Democrats, who have a more detailed manifesto than either the Conservatives or UKIP.
- Enact a Victimsâ Bill of Rights.
A bill of rights might give a sense of entitlement to victims that would help them feel able to ask for what they want when dealing with criminal justice agencies, and that would be welcome.
- Change sentencing guidelines to increase sentences available for hate crimes.
I am unhappy about this. It sounds like jumping on bandwagons rather than a serious suggestion. Adding a few months to a prison sentence would not deter hate crimes and would not protect victims. Sentence inflation is a dangerous road well travelled by governments.
- Give victims of crime a right to review what progress police have made to investigate the crime committed against them including cases where the police have declined to investigate.
This is a welcome proposal if it means that police liaise better with victims. It is not clear what a âright of reviewâ might mean and would have to be balanced against protecting people who might be investigated but are innocent.
- Give victims a right to choose restorative justice.
This is very welcome. Restorative Justice is more popular with victims than traditional justice and should be extended across the system, not as an addition but as a replacement.
- Design out opportunities for crime, by improving the built environment, the design of new technologies, and community resilience.
No one is going to argue with this. But, local authorities are cash-strapped and there is no money to improve the built environment.
- Prioritise prison for dangerous offenders and those who commit the most serious offences with increased use of tough non-custodial punishments including weekend or evening custody, curfews, unpaid work in the community and GPS tagging. This will enable us to introduce a presumption against short-term sentences that will help reduce the prison population and cut crime.
Restricting prison for people who have committed the most serious offences is a laudable aim. That is what prison should be. But introducing weekend or evening custody into community sentencing would be a mistake and seems to echo the Conservative proposal of âflash incarcerationâ using police cells â which I have already written about here.
The other more established sanctions mentioned by the Liberal Democrats do not have track records to boast about either.Â Curfews and GPS tracking would fill the coffers of the private security companies but there is no evidence that they prevent re-offending or help to turn lives round. Unpaid work was a success story when run by the probation service but as soon as it was taken over by private companies it fell apart. They sacked experienced staff, failed to find work placements and offenders spent their hours on public transport going from one non-job to another.
You donât get rid of short prison sentences by creating prisons in the community. So, whilst the aim is worthy, the mechanism needs improving.
- Promote Community Justice Panels and other local schemes designed to stop problems from escalating.
This sounds like a good idea. Presumably they would be volunteers.
- Extend the role of the Youth Justice Board to all offenders aged under 21, give them the power to commission mental health services and devolve youth custody budgets to Local Authorities.
Extending the role of the Youth Justice Board to this age group has also been promoted by the Labour Party, and I will address the problems with this proposal more fully in my blog on its manifesto.
In passing, however, it should be said that the suggestion that the criminal justice system should commission mental health services is, quite honestly, scary.Â This happens in the United States but only because they do not have an NHS.Â Children and teenagers should all have equal access to mental health and health services regardless of whether they have committed a crime or not.
If you follow the logic here then presumably this proposal would entail taking money away from NHS England and giving the budget to the Youth Justice Board.Â That is a really bad idea.
- Create a Womenâs Justice Board, modelled on the Youth Justice Board, to improve rehabilitation of female offenders.
The Howard League tried to persuade the Lib Dems not to include this. The Youth Justice Board presided over an explosion in custody of children for its first few years. We think the reduction in the last few years has its roots partly in short-lived inspired leadership at the YJB and radical changes to policing so that the number of children sucked into the system has reduced by two thirds.
The last thing we need is to replicate the model for women. The successful womenâs centres that help women on sentences deal with them as whole people, not primarily as criminals. Creating a Womenâs Justice Board is not the answer.
- Reform prisons so they become places of work, rehabilitation and learning, with offenders receiving an education and skills assessment within one week, starting a relevant course and programme of support within one month and able to complete courses on release.
Sounds good. The Howard League set up a business inside a prison, paying a real wage and competing fairly with other graphic design studios. We closed it when the prison service refused to allow prisoners to pay tax. So if the idea is to get prisoners working and paying tax, not just doodling around, then brilliant.
- Improve prison governance and accountability with a new value added measure to assess progress in reducing reoffending, providing education and tackling addiction and mental health issues, enabling good prisons to earn greater autonomy. We will strengthen the independence of the Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation.
Welcome strengthening of inspectors and the ombudsman should be placed on a statutory footing. But it is naĂŻve to think that prisons can reduce reoffending. The only prison ever to have been proved to have reduced reoffending is Grendon, that is a democratic therapeutic institution holding self-selecting inmates on long sentences.
- Provide experts in courts and police stations to identify where mental health or a drug problem is behind an offenderâs behaviour so they can be dealt with in a way that is appropriate. We will pilot US-style drug and alcohol courts.
US courts work because that is the only route to drug and alcohol services â as I have already pointed out, the US has no NHS.
- Strengthen the ârealistic prospect of custodyâ test to reduce the use of remand for suspected offenders who can be safely monitored in the community and are unlikely to receive a prison sentence if found guilty.
Good. Seventy per cent of the men, women and children sent to prison on remand by magistrates courts are either found to be not guilty or are given a community sentence.
- Liberal Democrats will adopt the default position that â unless there are strong reasons to the contrary in specific cases â public servants rather than commercial organisations should provide detention, prison, immigration enforcement and secure units.
In conclusion, while this manifesto outlines some admirable principles, it lacks a coherent vision of the place of the criminal justice system and how limited it can be in turning around lives.
You can find a copy of the Manifesto here.
The crime and justice section is between pages 117-127.
My second blog on the party manifestos is a commentary on UKIPâs proposals on justice.
- Removal of Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights
British lawyers drafted the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and we should be proud of our countryâs contribution to international law. The ECHR and Human Rights Act provide a framework for our courts to put a steadying hand on government and to protect the fragile who cannot protect themselves. Sometimes ECHR protects people who are unpopular, but that is exactly why British lawyers developed them, to protect the then unpopular Jews, trades unionists, and today the people who disagree with us or who are disliked by those with power. A civilisation should be judged by the way it treats outsiders.
- Reduce the number of Police and Crime Commissioners
The Howard League has called for the abolition of PCCs as they are an expensive additional layer that has no democratic support. Reducing the number would create even larger constituencies that are not coterminous with police forces, a bureaucratic anomaly. Democratic oversight of the police to ensure accountability is essential. How that is achieved is not easy, but it is certainly not through the overwhelmingly discredited PCCs.
- Will not outsource or privatise UK policing
This is to be welcomed. Creeping privatisation of justice services makes them less flexible because they are given long contracts, less accountable because they are not subject to freedom of information, and more expensive because companies have been profiteering from the taxpayer.
- Re-establish prison capacity by removing foreign criminals
There have to be bilateral agreements to send foreign nationals to their own country to serve their sentence. In many cases this is in place and people can be transferred. Of course, it works both ways and British nationals can be transferred back home too. The process is complicated and successive governments have attempted to deport foreign nationals convicted of crimes and the manifesto lacks detail as to how this would be expedited. It is unlikely that this measure would impact significantly on prison overcrowding.
- Prisoners will be given sufficient numeracy and literacy skills so they can re-enter the workplace
An emphasis on education in prisons is much to be welcomed. Literacy and numeracy skills are essential to help towards employment as well as other areas of life. If all prisoners are to be guaranteed educational services to bring them up to, say, secondary school, this would require huge additional expenditure. Some 140,000 people (mostly men) go into prisons each year and the majority have literacy and numeracy deficits. Some prisoners have learning difficulties and disabilities and many have mental health problems. Education in prisons has to be creative and expert and does not come cheap. The group most in need of basic education are the people entering prison on remand or on short sentences, so resources would need to be applied immediately on entry as these people are not in the system for long, unless, of course as happens the majority of the time, they return.
- Prisoners will not be given the vote.
No surprise here. Some prisoners already have the franchise, the 11,000 or so men and women who are on remand are permitted to vote as they are innocent until proven guilty. The question is whether convicted prisoners should be able to vote. Most jurisdictions do allow specified prisoners to vote and recognise that imprisonment should not be âcivic deathâ but a route to a good and useful life on release. Taking civic responsibility is seen as part of that process.
In conclusion, this manifesto is predictable and includes simple populist measures often without analysis or serious consideration of the evidence.
You can find a copy of the ManifestoÂ here.
The crime and justice section is between pages 52 â 55.
The parties have now all published their manifestos and I thought it might be helpful to subject some of their proposals to scrutiny and look at whether they have been developed using any evidence, any evidence at all. So first up, the Conservatives. Others to follow over the next few days.
- Toughen sentencing and reform the prison system, so dangerous criminals are kept off the streets.
Prison sentences have been increasing in length consistently for the past twenty years. We now have more men sentenced to life imprisonment than all the other 46 countries in the Council of Europe added together. There are more than 30,000 men serving more than four years. Sentence inflation through proliferating the number of actions that are criminalised, mandatory sentences and pressure on the courts means the UK is one of the most punitive nations in the western world. The reality is that even people who have committed dangerous and violent offences come back onto the streets, so it matters what we do with them. Prisons have been contributing to crime for too long, things do need to change, but I havenât seen any evidence that proposals being put to the British public will tackle this effectively.
The Coalition government set out bold plans in 2010 to reform the prison system through cutting the number of prisoners and getting people doing useful work inside jails. After two years this was abandoned. Prisons are now so overcrowded and under-staffed it will be very challenging to get people out of their cells.
- Make further savings by closing old, inefficient prisons, building larger, modern and fit-for-purpose ones and expanding payment-by-results. Introduce widespread random testing of drug use in jails, new body scanners, greater use of mobile phone blocking technology and a new strategy to tackle corruption in prisons.
Larger prisons can be run cheaper but they do not solve problems, they create new ones. There are 30 prisons that hold more than 1,000 men, many of them quite modern. They do not prevent suicides, many have had terrible problems with violence and drugs. New large prisons have been built without enough workshop or education or activity places as they would be too expensive, so prisoners are locked idle in new cells instead of being locked idle in old cells.
Random drug testing has been in place for many years. It has not reduced drug taking. It has made the drug market in prisons more lucrative. It is purposeful prisons with skilled staff and good relationships that reduces violence and drug taking.
Modern private prisons now have phones in cells so the incentive to get an illicit phone to call your family is reduced.
Corruption is a problem and must be tackled. But very low paid and poorly trained staff are more susceptible to pressure and corruption. The Howard League investigated staff training and recommended that prison officers should be educated with a vocational degree, much like nurses. It is a complex and challenging job and deserves to be appropriately recognised.
- Support victims, so that the most vulnerable in society get the support they deserve â establish a new Victims Law.
Supporting victims is to be welcomed, but where is the detail? The recent transformation of community sentences appears to have overlooked services that had been provided by the probation service to victims and it is now unclear what the victims of the 200,000 people to be managed by private companies will get as services.
- Toughen sentencing and use new technology to protect the public.
There is no research evidence that electronic tagging prevents crime or protects the public. Indeed, we are still waiting to see if criminal activity on a massive scale was undertaken by the very companies profiting from the technology that was meant to be protecting the public.
- A new semi-custodial sentence will be introduced for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour.
Any new âswift and sureâ sentence would need considerable additional resources at every stage. The courts are struggling with todayâs caseload and a new sentence that requires quick action requires extra money. Flash incarceration requires flush pockets.
Research in the US and UK has shown that âscared straightâ is counter-productive. It tends to increase crime. Short sentences for people with chaotic lives compounds problems. Courts have had the option of short periods of custody for decades, there is no evidence that this deters or changes behaviour for the better.
The suggestion appears to be that people will spend a few nights in a police cell. The police do not have the resources to deal with a new cohort of people who will need feeding and monitoring.
On the other hand, a few nights in a cell for a middle class offender, perhaps a tax evader, would be a deterrent to future offending, it is unlikely to affect an alcoholic or drug abuser or person with mental health problems. If the suggestion is to widen the criminal justice net to include new categories of white collar criminals, corporate executives who engage in anti-social tax evasion, it might work. Short periods of custody are used as pure punishment in Nordic countries for middle class drink drivers and have had a deterrent effect.
- We will improve the treatment of women offenders, exploring how new technology may enable more women with young children to serve their sentence in the community.
The 50 womenâs centres round the country have been well researched and evaluated as being successful in turning round womenâs lives, helping them with parenting and getting them successfully through their sentences. Technology is not part of this success. The research and evaluations show that long term relationships and support given to women in the centres have turned womenâs lives round and have significantly reduced reoffending and crime. Sadly, these successful centres are under threat as the Coalition government ignored them when handing community provision to the new community companies.
Overall, drawing lessons from the United States on the operation of community sentences is peculiar, given that probation services there are less sophisticated in the country of mass incarceration. Where there has been innovation in the US, such as in the problem-solving courts, it has been to introduce services we already provide, not through a criminal sanction but through the NHS or local welfare services.
You can find a copy of the Manifesto here.
The crime and justice section is between pages 58 â 60.
This manifesto is disappointing. The Conservative criminal justice manifesto for the 2010 election had been developed over several years in consultation with academics and practitioners and reflected both new thinking and a use of evidence. It seems this time we are back to the penal populism of yore.
April 16, 2015
Âˇ Frances Crook Âˇ One Comment
Posted in: Community progrmmes, Inside prisons, Mental health, Police, Prison officers, Prisons, Privatisation, Rehabilitation, Sentencing, Work in prisons
The petty revision of the rules governing prison life continues with a new instruction about the destruction or sale of small bits and pieces that prisoners can gather in their cells to make life bearable.
The rule says that unattributable or unauthorised property can be destroyed or sold three months after it is found. This is probably aimed mainly at the mountains of mobile phones found inside prisons. I was contacted some time ago by a member of the independent monitoring board of a big London prison as they had thousands of confiscated phones and didnât know what to do with them, would we like them? No, thank you all the same, I replied, I donât know what to do with them either. But instead of dealing with the problem of phones in prisons, most of which are used to keep in contact with loved ones because the pay phones are so expensive and access is so limited, the rules are a blunt instrument that will destroy all manner of precious stuff.
This is what has been decided.
Unauthorised property is determined by the Governor. Governors will have to decide what procedure they are going to put in place. They have to keep the property for at least three months during which time a prisoner can âmake representationsâ. If it involves a phone, that is a clear case of being against the rules. However, if, say it is a book that the governor thinks has not been authorised or a photo of a loved one, some writing or painting materials, clothing or food, it can still be confiscated on the say-so of the governor.
Prisoners are being told they can use the prison complaints system and put in a complaint to the Prisons Ombudsman. There are several problems with this. It takes months, and sometimes even years, to get a complaint resolved, by which time your book has been burnt. Also it requires a decent level of literacy to write out a complaint and many prisoners cannot write, have learning difficulties or canât write in English.
Some of the property can be sold by the prison. This creates the image of the prison setting up a street stall with mounds of mobile phones, books and tins of tuna for sale, or creating an Ebay account.
The proceeds will all go to Nacro, an organisation I have worked with on and off for many years and that does sterling work resettling prisoners. However, I wonder if this charity has considered the ethics of profiting from the sale of personal items confiscated from prisoners.
If we want people to respect justice and the rule of law, we have to apply them. These new rules are arbitrary and will create confusion, resentment and injustice.
Another day, another misguided justice policy.
This time the introduction of the criminal courts charge â an additional fine following every single conviction, breach or failed appeal in the criminal courts. The Ministry of Justiceâs line is that this is an administrative charge so that those who commit crimes pay for the cost of the courts. This might sound logical at first but it is entirely detached from the reality of the justice system.
As Richard Monkhouse, Chairman of the Magistratesâ Association, has highlighted, many people who commit crimes have done so because they have no money. Levels of outstanding court debts are already so high because people do not have the means to pay.
The new rules, which come into force on 13 April, leave no room for judges and magistrates to use their discretion. They will be forced to hand down a fine that they know a person simply cannot pay, making a mockery of justice.
Ministers have described the fines as âquite modestâ â ranging from around ÂŁ150 – ÂŁ1,200 depending on the case. Whilst those on a government salary might find the money easily, it is a daunting amount for the vast majority of people coming through the courts each day. There is a real danger that defendants will feel pressure to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed to avoid further unmanageable debt.
Let me give you two examples of how this could work. You are a government Minister who gets into trouble, I donât know, maybe a shop theft or on-line pornography, andÂ you get a community sentence and have to pay the charge. You pay it.
Or, you are someone with a history of mental health and drinking problems. You commit the same offence as the Minister and are given a community sentence and have to pay the charge. You donât. You have not got the money. So you get hauled back to court and breached for failing to pay and failing to turn up to meetings with the private contractor who oversees community sentences. You are sentenced to prison for few weeks and you now have to pay two charges, the original one and a second charge for being in court for breach.
The government plans to send those who cannot pay to prison. The impact assessment predicts at least ÂŁ5 million will be spent locking them up, driving the prison population further upwards.
We already know our prisons are dangerously and chronically overcrowded. Why on earth is the Ministry of Justice trying to send more people there because they are poor? Do we really want to go back to the days of the debtorsâ prisons?
There has been talk in recent years of the idea of having a âWomenâs Justice Boardâ along the lines of the Youth Justice Board. It has been floated by Sadiq Khan of Labour and this suggestion again came to the fore in a policy announcement from the Liberal Democrats a couple of weeks ago.
At first sight it looks sensible, but as with many superficially enticing ideas, it could have deleterious unintended consequences. Our concern is that it should not be based in the justice system but should be a âWomenâs Boardâ that looks more broadly at the particular needs of vulnerable women who are at risk of coming into conflict with the law.
It is clear that in all areas, but perhaps most starkly in the justice system, Â equality of treatment does not mean equality of outcome and that the different needs and circumstances of women must be recognised and acted upon.
A Womenâs Board which includes, but is not limited to justice policy, could have an important role in reducing the number of women involved in the justice system. However, it is crucial that any new body is truly cross-departmental and does not have the net-widening effect that new justice-led organisations so often have.
Due to the fantastic successes in reducing the number of children involved in the criminal justice system in recent years it is natural to look to the youth justice sector for inspiration. However, whilst there are lessons to take from the Youth Justice Board, a similar body for women is not the right approach to take. It must be remembered the number of children in prison exploded following the creation of the Youth Justice Board and has still not fallen to pre-2000 levels. In addition, the primary function of the Youth Justice Board is placing children in custody and a specialist body to do this for women is not needed.
Much of the success in reducing the number of children in prison is the result of major changes in the policing of children and a concerted effort by all police forces to reduce child arrests. This is what must be replicated for women. Several police forces are beginning to take steps to change the response to women involved in low level criminal activity. There is a growing awareness amongst police officers that many women who come into the contact with the criminal justice system are victims themselves and are often pressured into the commission of low level offences by violent partners and addictions. Change in the way women are policed is essential if we are to see a substantial drop in the numbers of women in prison.
Furthermore, the debate around women in the justice system is shifting towards a focus on helping women at risk and preventing unnecessary criminalisation. There is a developing consensus that reducing the number of women in the justice system is in a large part reliant on changing services for and attitudes towards women in difficulty. It is by creating a Womenâs Board to build upon this agenda that success can be achieved.
A Womenâs Board ought to bring together all those departments most closely linked to women at risk, not only of involvement in the justice system, but also of domestic violence, homelessness, drug addiction and mental ill health. A Womenâs Board ought to look across government output as a whole and develop a coherent approach to helping women at risk and preventing harm.
The Ministry of Justice ought to play a part in the development of such a board, but should not lead it. Creating a new Ministry of Justice body to reduce the number of women in the justice system simply will not work. Instead, the Womenâs Board ought to be led at a senior, ideally ministerial, level by the Department for Communities and Local Government or the Government Equalities Office. The Department for Health and the Home Office should also play a major role.
This body could be successful in reducing the number of women in the justice system if it brings together all the departments and agencies which can have an impact on the problems and disadvantages that lead women into the justice system in the first place. A Womenâs Board, rather than a Womenâs Justice Board, would be a huge step towards achieving the aim of seeing far fewer women in the criminal justice system.
I have just talked to a young man who was recently released from Feltham. He told me about his time there.
He was on the basic level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme (IEP) which meant that he was locked in his cell pretty much all the time, allowed out only for a few minutes each day. He had no television or radio. When I asked what he did all day, he replied that the only thing to do was sleep. He said that he got no exercise for two months, partly because the building had flooded. He said as a consequence the communal showers and toilets were stinking with excrement that had floated up with the flooding water.
Teenagers on the basic level are permitted to have two showers a week, on Saturday and Wednesday. The rest of the time they are living in their own sweat.
The boys have to wear prison uniform and are given a change of clothes, including underwear and socks, twice a week. The clothing comprises jogging bottoms and sweatshirts that have been worn by hundreds of boys and are shoddy and misshapen.
They are given a ‘breakfast pack’ comprising cereal, tea and milk. At lunch they get a baguette. They are given a hot meal at about 5pm. The boys are constantly hungry. Those on the basic level are not permitted to use any private money their families send in to buy extra food.
This young man was put on the basic regime and told that he had to behave for two weeks before he could be considered for a reprieve and allowed to have a few extra privileges. The problem was that no one explained what ‘behave’ meant. He was given no advice and no help to ‘behave’. He was merely locked in a cell alone and ignored.
Perhaps the most frightening part of his testimony was that he said that he preferred to be in Isis prison, because although it was a much rougher and more violent prison, because it was run by the inmates, at least it was more consistent. If you get out of line, you get stabbed.
Today the Independent Monitoring Board published its annual report on Feltham, which draws a picture of an institution in crisis. I am not going to rehash the details which are available for all to read, except to say that this really matters. These young people are being failed today. They have been failed for years.
Pouring good money and lives after bad is not working. It should be closed down, and fast.